From 1800s to today: How have office design trends developed over time?

Steelcase,  manufacturer of furniture for offices, hospitals, and classrooms, looks at how office trends have changed through the decades, and how these trends are reflected in the UAE today. 

The evolution of office design has seen a series of opposing demands: interaction versus autonomy, openness versus privacy and now, analogue versus digital. The first offices—rooms that were intended exclusively for working at desks—emerged around 1800 as work spaces for merchants, government officials and tradesmen. By the early 20th century, only three percent of all employees held office jobs.

All images are courtesy of Steelcase

The development of the office landscape has been influenced by several factors, with trends often originating from the United States.

Appears in “Color Town” 1965

Here we look at four key trends that have played a major role in the development of office design and the changing attitudes towards work over the ages:

Read more about modern office design trends here. 

Trend 1: Open-plan offices and the desire for efficiency

More than any other office format, the open-plan office represents effectiveness, productivity and the efficient use of space. Open office structures found their way into U.S. businesses in the middle of the 20th century in order to manage the economic growth after the Second World War.

1981 Steelcase Technical Center interior. From “Buildings” reprint.

Organisations today focus primarily on progress, growth and innovation. Believing they offer the best support in terms of collaboration, communication and shared learning, they continue to invest in open-plan offices.

The open-plan trend has gained a much greater acceptance in the United States than it has in the UAE to this day: only 11 percent of organisations in the UAE embrace entirely open-plan spaces, in comparison to the global average of 23 percent. The majority of UAE employees (52 percent) work in a shared private office compared to the global norm of 37 percent.

Trend 2: Executive Offices

The idea that an increase in open-spaced offices may have led to the elimination of the executive ‘corner’ offices, is a misconception.

“The executive office still exists in companies around the world, and an executive’s status is usually defined by the size of his/her office,” said Marc Nicolaisen, director of Customer Experience at Steelcase. “In 1996, our management team moved from individual offices into open spaces, which was quite unthinkable at the time.”

Open-plan offices are now a common practice. For Generation X and Y (Millennials), status and traditional hierarchies tend to take a back seat, while network-based structures and communication is becoming more and more important.

Trend 3: Wellbeing in the office

After several decades in which space efficiency was considered the primary measure of things, a reverse trend began at the beginning of the 21st century. Employees and companies in Europe came to understand that open-plan offices were not a one-size- fits-all solution for greater productivity. They began to focus more attention on ergonomic aspects.

The battle over skilled workers that arose during this period also played a crucial role. To attract the best talent and develop loyalty, companies emphasised the idea of well-being more than ever before, particularly in the way they organised their workspace.

The European trend of focusing on people and their well-being didn’t arrive in America until some 10 years later. The main reason for this was the large number of permanently installed cubicles, which made it impossible to flexibly create new rooms or secluded areas.

Today, the UAE is the first country in the world to appoint a minister of happiness, and to align government objectives in becoming amongst the top five happiest countries in the world by 2021.

Trend 4: Digitisation and the home office

The next wave of trends came approximately 10 years ago during the course of digitalisation. As technological aids such as smart phones and laptops made it increasingly possible to work on the go, more employees demanded this freedom and flexibility. The result was the home office.

The United States set the trend in this development. Uninspiring and cramped open-plan offices made creative and innovative work more difficult, so that a growing number of people used the opportunities of digitalisation and regularly took their work home or to a cafe.

In the UAE, a whopping 16 percent of today’s employees claim to work away from the office every day – almost double the global average of 9 percent – according to Steelcase’s 2016 Gobal Engagement Report.

So, what is the office of the future?

In the years to come, the use of technologies in the office of the future will go far beyond current possibilities.

“People, workplaces and technology will become even more closely networked, thanks to sensors and the Internet of Things,” predicts Marc Nicolaisen. “At some point, the entire company will be linked and networked—from appointment calendars, furniture and the room booking system to individual employees and even the conference room.”

The smart office will thus support users and organisations in their work in the best possible ways. Fundamental change can also be seen in the way managers and their staff interact with one another: “Managers are increasingly taking on the role of coaches and are not calling the shots as much logistically and in terms of content,” said Marc Nicolaisen.

This change in management style is closely meshed with the spatial environment. The disappearing hierarchical executive offices, combined with more open areas where employees can talk and work together without complications, is what makes network-based collaboration with flat hierarchies possible.

Related story: Office design in the Middle East is still “old school” says X Works

 

 

 

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